WHAT THE WORLD would have been like the past 50 years without the U.N., we will never know. Probably a lot worse, possibly blown up.
This week, as the greatest concentration of world leaders ever found in one room celebrates the 50th anniversary of the U.N., they demonstrate what the U.N. is for. It has not suppressed war but provided a substitute, a place for parties that aren't talking to talk.
In its first two decades the U.N. served as the principal arena for the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. Then it became an arena for the Third World's claims against the wealthy North, with the Soviet bloc egging on the Third World.
A third phase began when the Bush administration, proclaiming a "New World Order," thought the peace-keeping machinery was the solution to a succession of conflicts. Then disillusion set in, which is the period we are in now. The U.N. is not an entity so much as a place or set of machinery. It is no better than its members' collective will. But the winner more often than not has been the U.S.
The U.N. is not a happy place as it starts its second half-century. President Clinton urges on it a host of reforms to avoid waste and graft. He needs that to persuade a reluctant Congress to pay the U.S. share for what the U.S. has urged the U.N. to do. The Third World, meanwhile, wants "reform" to shift power from the big dues-payers to the poor little statelets. While the Security Council seating reflects realities of 50 years ago rather than of today, no rearrangement is likely to be agreed upon.
President Clinton and successor administrations must reconcile their willingness to pay with what they want the U.N. to do. Meanwhile, the U.S. program for reforms is urgently in need of implementation. The U.N. is in sorry shape, but the world would be sorrier for its collapse.